Four-legged comrades: A look inside the NOPD Mounted Unit

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Officers and their hairy partners breathe a sigh of relief after working hard all Carnival season.

The NOPD Mounted Unit undergoes rigorous training, especially during big events to keep citizens safe.

They are one of the symbols to the end of Mardi Gras - officers and their four-legged comrades closing down the French Quarter.

"One policeman on a horse can do the work of about eight or 10 guys on foot. So it really really helps for us to have 18 to 20 guys on horses down there controlling the crowd," lead instructor David Waguespack said.

While they make it look easy, it can be a tough job.

"Going through the crowds, sometimes people think it's funny to maybe smack the horse on the rear. It's an unexpected move that the horse has to deal with, and the rider has to deal with as well," Officer Joseph Jones said.

So how do the horses stay calm in all the chaos of Bourbon Street?

"They're really big, they're very docile, and that's kind of what we want. We need that on Bourbon Street. When we put a horse in the middle of Bourbon Street, it's very unique for a horse to stand there in front of all that music, drunk people so to speak petting them," Waguespack said.

Just how does the NOPD get their horses ready for the big crowds year round? They've started a new breeding program.

"We raise them from birth, and it does take about two and a half to three years for a horse from birth to get on the streets to be a viable police mount," Waguespack said.

Training starts in the arena before they hit the streets.

"In the daytime, we'll go to quiet neighborhoods, and then we'll start working our way downtown during the day, and then after that, if they keep progressing, we'll go at nighttime downtown, and then after they pass every stage of our training, they become a New Orleans Police Department viable mount," Waguespack said.

Only the cream of the crop makes the cut.

"We usually use them for 30, 60 or 90 days before they actually progress to being a full-time police mount, but a lot of them wash out," Waguespack said.

There are 25 police horses and for big events like the Bayou Classic, Sugar Bowl, New Year's and Carnival season, all are put into action.

One of the key things that gets the horses ready for the parades is training techniques like walking by large moving objects.

"Horses see somewhat size of things ten times bigger than themselves, so we kind of simulate that. They get used to that, such as things like Mardi Gras floats and things coming at them like big ladders all on St. Charles Avenue," Waguespack said.

Jones is a longtime rider, with 14 years under his belt at the Mounted Division.

"I've been assigned a permanent mount, which name is Ace. He's 16 years of age, and me and him have been partners for approximately 12 years now," Jones said.

Just like family, Jones and Ace have each others' backs.

"We have a great partnership together. We developed a good relationship among each other. He knows me as well as I know him. Like people say you protect those who protect you, so me and him have that special bond with each other," Jones said.

The two can usually be seen on Bourbon Street.

"He's very very good with the crowds, very docile. He knows how to approach people, he knows how to entertain people as well," Jones said.

Jones said unlike other agencies, the Mounted Unit allows people to approach the horses.

"When people come up, they want to take pictures. Sometimes the horse will turn his head as if he's posing with the cameras," Jones said.

Every day Jones goes to work, he grooms Ace before they hit the streets.

"It's a training experience for the horses every day that we go out, cause every day is something different. So you never know what you may come in contact with. It could be a noise that comes out of nowhere and you have to be able to control your mount, which we do," Jones said.

Jones said the horses and riders pair up to work their way through crowds.

"We are able to gently move the crowd to a certain side of different areas to protect the foot patrol officers who might be handling something on the ground level," Jones said.

Through thick and thin, Jones has watched Ace mature.

"His temperament could be short, but he has more patience than a lot of our officers on foot patrol, so if we're good, he's good," Jones said.

"People have a habit of throwing beads off a balcony. Some of the horses, because they don't know where it's coming from, all of a sudden it's in front of their face, they get startled but they don't lose control," Jones said.

All of this training is necessary for their tough jobs, but they do like to have a little fun after with a game of soccer.

"It helps them with the agility, and it is all for fun though, but we do do this in training. We have training days where at the end of training days we'll play a soccer game so to speak," Waguespack said.

After a hard day's work, horses get a nice rinse before going back into their stables, and if they're lucky, a special treat.

Each of the riders and their horses share a closeness only they can understand.

"He's like a family member. Just like people with pets, dogs and cats at home, we have that special bond that we've been having for 12 years, and he's family," Jones said.

More than a decade of training, patrolling and riding through obstacles in and out of the arena together. Ace and Jones are just one of 25 duos who get to work every day with their best friends.